I chat by phone with Gene Lichtenstein Friday afternoon, June 25, 2004. I run down my list of previous interviews, including Gary Rosenblatt.
"I would think that Gary is as knowledgeable as anyone."
"Yeah. He also gave me the least. He gave me nothing. It was a complete wash, but it's a good get. I didn't get any information from him, but yeah, I can tell everybody that I interviewed Gary. Here's what he said."
"If you interview Gary, all the doors will be open."
"Even though he might as well have just spoken about the weather for 30 minutes. It was so nothing, so safe. It was the worst interview I've done."
"I'm willing to be interviewed but I am not a good yardstick of Jewish journalism. All of the editors of Jewish newspapers I know are all Jewish in a way that I am not. They're observant Jews. They live in a Jewish world. All their friends are Jewish. All the people they see at parties are Jewish. Their wives are Jewish. They look at Judaism and Israel and being a Jew in America from a different perspective than I do. I don't belong to a synagogue. I never have. My children were not bar mitzvahed. I don't belong to Jewish organizations and I don't live in a Jewish world. Gary is Orthodox. They all go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. I don't. They are all committed to Judaism and I'm not. I'm not even a rebel. It's just a fluke that I edited a Jewish newspaper."
I meet Gene Lichtenstein at the Farmers Market near Fairfax Blvd on Thursday morning, July 1, 2004.
His hands move constantly during our interview, gesturing, scratching, emphasizing points.
He talks about his time creating The Jewish Journal of the North Shore for a Boston-area Jewish Federation (1983-85). "I had enough run-ins with the Federation and with a couple of people on the board who were ardent Zionists. I'm not a Zionist."
"Would you prefer a binational state?"
"I don't know. I'm certainly opposed to what Israel is doing. If I had to choose between a Jewish state and a democratic state, I'd choose a democratic one.
"I was at an 84th birthday party for Stanley Sheinbaum. I was sitting at a table with bright liberal Jews. We were all with Peace Now. Soon we were talking about this issue. I said something about in America, do you think of yourself as a Jew first or an American first? This smart young woman who'd helped run Tom Hayden's campaign and was in Peace Now as an activist, said, I'm a Jew first. I almost fell out of the chair. I said that I think of myself first as an American.
"That question assumes that I have a stake in Israel and I don't feel like I have a stake in Israel.
"When I started the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, I did not know Jewish Los Angeles. The paper was controversial. One, my stance on certain issues was not something the community accepted. And it was community-based enough. I was more interested in foreign, national, political and cultural issues. I was not interested enough in local news. If you look at the Northern California Jewish Bulletin, you'll see that that's a local paper. And that's what the community expected.
"Also, I was naive about certain issue. I remember devoting an early issue to intermarriage. I thought it was a joke. I couldn't imagine that in 1986, people would take intermarriage seriously. I had a great Roy Lichtenstein-style cartoon with balloons coming out and a story that made a joke of the whole thing. The publisher said, boy, you really put your foot in it.
"I was up front with my lack of knowledge of Judaism. He said, we'll get you up to snuff. Well, I learned pretty fast."
"What did you get the most hate mail over?"
"Not attacking the Palestinians. The first Intifada occurred. There was a small Peace Now demonstration and Orthodox Rabbi Abner Weiss led a counter-demonstration with placards and drowned them out and wouldn't let them speak. A lot of people said the Peace Now people should keep quiet and not criticize Israel. I wrote an editorial saying that silence was a form of speech. And that's everything that America is opposed to. If you felt Israel was wrong, not to speak to was to join the other side and to give up your responsibility as a concerned citizen to exercise your voice.
"The paper got known to be too liberal. I didn't think it was liberal at all. I would always publish other views. Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote this piece attacking me. I published it. He later called me and said, 'My wife says you were right.'
"Yehuda Lev had been considered for the editorship of the paper and almost got it. I hired two people who were up for the job and I hired them both -- Yehuda and Marlene Marks. Yehuda couldn't get over that I had hired the competition.
"Yehuda was liberal and left. He was against bureaucracy and authority. He was very critical of Jewish organizations. He often got his facts wrong. I didn't know that at first. I learned the hard way. But he was a good writer. I got pressured to fire him. Finally, the implication was fire him or you go, but I didn't fire him."
"What about hiring Teresa Strasser?"
"That was my idea. Teresa had lived in San Francisco and done book reviews and pieces for them. She came down here and was looking for something. I said, why don't you write about being a single Jewish woman in LA. She said, can I really do that? I said of course. But I want to give you the first three subjects. Write about your mother. So she wrote this piece about her mother taking her at age 14 to get fitted for a diaphragm. We got a lot of mail for that."
Gene laughs. "More con than pro. I thought her stuff was so good, other newspaper would pick it up. I paid her more than I could afford. I told her, I know you can't live on what we pay so I'm going to give you double. But when we sell it, I want a little back. She said fine. Well, no paper would print her. They all said, what's so Jewish about this?
"We wrote a piece about Israel Bonds and we got a lot of antagonism for that. It was mostly the stuff on Israel that got most of the complaints.
"When Salam-Al Marayiti, the head of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, was selected [around 1999] by Richard Gephardt to serve on the anti-terrorist committee. The Jewish community exploded against that. How can a Muslim... I called Salam and interviewed him. I wrote a piece that he reflected a Muslim perspective and there's nothing wrong with that. And for the Jewish community to object was unfair. We should endorse it. We were the only Jewish newspaper that said so. And Gephardt yanked him.
"I learned about Judaism. I went to Israel every year and interviewed Peres, Sharon, Rabin.
"My criticism of Jewish organizations and Jewish identity issues was that American Jews thought of themselves too often as victims. They were sold this to solidify the community.
"When I grew up, you did not apologize for being an anti-Semite. That was given. Jews were outsiders. True, but I was never a victim. I was never willing to concede that I couldn't move freely and compete. Jewish community papers too often confirm that sense of victimhood. I saw my role as leading the Jewish community into America. You could still live in a Jewish community but not be too distrustful of Americans. You could move freely back and forth. I chose to live freely. Most of my readers chose to live in the Jewish community. That's fine. I just wanted them to feel that the doors were open.
"I had a series of lunches with a wealthy powerful Jewish realtor in LA. He was at the center of the Jewish community. He told me at one of these lunches that if Hubert Humphrey had won [in 1968], he would've been the first secretary of HUD. He'd been very critical of the paper and tried to shut it down and almost succeeded [circa 1995]. He brought it up at the Federation."
"His primary problem with the paper was?"
"Israel. He said to me at lunch at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, you can't have confusion. You can't have different views. You can't have them question. In the end, you can't trust the Gentiles.
"I almost fell out of my chair."
"Did he say goyim or Gentiles?"
"I don't know. I hate that word goyim, so I block on it."
"Do you hate the word shiksa?"
"Yeah, I do."
"Yeah, I do not like those words."
"I do not like that. Schvartze. I do not like that. Never use those words.
"I heard that [you can't trust the Gentiles] again and again from wealthy self-made Jews in LA. I opposed that view. You can't trust some Gentiles but I can say the same thing about Jews. That was the central clashing point. I saw my role as educating the reader so that he could see America as a safe open place with some anti-Semitism.
"Anti-Semites are now the people out of power. They lack the education and the skills. They're not modernists. Society has bypassed them."
"How much of your vision did you get to fulfill?"
"It was in the paper most issues. My being a psychologist helped. I didn't try to be politically didact. I'd write something agreeing with the people I disagreed with. It's called feeding the symptom. Yes, this is the way people feel. And therefore, and then the hook.
"It's ok to be frightened of elevators or to fear that your next-door-neighbor is out to get you. He often is. So it's sensible... It's called paradoxical intervention in therapy.
"If the consequence of your fear is that you never go outside your house, perhaps it would be better to find a way to go outside your house and at the same time understand that your neighbor may not like you.
"Paul Conrad of The Los Angeles Times did a series of cartoons [against Israel during the first Intifada]. The Federation and the synagogues ordered a boycott of The LA Times. They asked their membership to cancel their subscriptions. I didn't know Conrad. I went down and spent an afternoon interviewing him. In the next issue of the Jewish Journal, Conrad's cartoons were on the cover of the paper. I wrote a piece about Conrad saying he was a populist from the Midwest and how incensed he was at social injustice and civil rights. How he drew cartoons against anti-Semites and anti-Blacks. He saw Palestinians vs Israel as a civil rights issue. He saw the Palestinians as the blacks. He was not an anti-Semite. Boycotting The LA Times was foolish and Conrad was getting a bad rap.
"The Federation had a meeting with The LA Times a week or so later and The Times editor pulled out the Jewish Journal and said, well, not everyone in the Jewish community feels that way. Look. Stanley Hirsh was the president of the Federation then. That was a hot issue.
"Stanley Hirsh became the publisher when Ed Brennglass died (1999)."
"What were the dynamics behind Stanley giving you the hook?"
"Stanley was like a bull in a china shop. A self-made man, he was aggressive and sensitive and defensive about the other presidents of the Federation who were lawyers, accountants and doctors. In cultural class and manner, Stanley was roughhewn and he boasted about that. I was defined by him, correctly, as an intellectual. That was negative from his point of view.
"When he became publisher, I thought it wasn't going to work. To my surprise, it worked well. Ed Brennglass ran a tight ship. Stanley asked me what we need. The paper had become profitable and all the money had gone to charity. I said we can't go on this way. We have to pour some of the money back into the paper. I want raises for the staff and hire a couple of people. He said, do it.
"We spent the money. The next year, our expenses zoomed. He said, you've got to cut back. I found ways to cut back $100,000, which is what we had ballooned up. In January 2000, he came to me, liking the kudos the paper had received. He said the paper is a success due to you. I'm giving you a $10,000 raise. I'd put in requests for raises for everyone and he had been tight on that. I was putting in for $500, $1000 and $2000 raises for the staff but not me.
"Then, over the next six months, how do I say this? Two things happened. Critics of the paper who said we weren't covering the community well enough reached him. He felt that. Second, he wanted editorial control. He'd say, I want this on the cover. Why don't you do this story? He was a forceful personality. He wanted to demonstrate that he was the boss of the whole thing. It came out in ugly ways at meetings in our office. He did get out of control."
"Did he think Rob would be more malleable?"
"Stanley called me in and fired me in September 2000. He said, it isn't working out. You don't listen to my orders. It's not a community newspaper. I said, you gave me a $10,000 raise six months ago. What's changed? Has the paper changed in six months? No. So, we haggled over what he would give me as a severance. This was in the middle of the week. He asked me to clear out my desk by Friday. I said I'd rather do it on Saturday. He said fine.
"On Sunday, I get a call from Stanley. He wanted to know if I had time for a cup of coffee. I said yeah. He said, where do you live? I'll meet you. I said OK
"He'd called Rob down on Friday about becoming the editor. I thought Rob would become a great editor.
"Stanley said, I'll get to it right away. You had said to me, let me stay until Christmas. That will give me a chance to find something else. I had said no. I want to change my mind. So you want to stay until the new year? Yes. And you will look for another editor? Exactly. The same terms of severance will stand.
"I said, why? He said, well, Rob came by the office on Friday. And he's worse than you are. He wants his own way. I'm going to hire someone else. I thought about it for a day. I called Rob to ask what was going on. Rob told me. He went down there and told Stanley that he wanted a raise and he wanted to do this and that. I thought Rob deserved it. I thought he could do the job and do it well. He had a different approach from mine. He was a part of the community. Even at the end of 16 years, I was not really a part of the community. I still didn't belong to a synagogue. His wife was a [Conservative] rabbi.
"I felt like without Rob or me, he could not put out a paper.
"I called Stanley on Monday and said no. I did have an ace in the hole. I had gotten a call that weekend from JJ Goldberg. 'I hear you're leaving and would you cover the presidential elections for me.' He wasn't going to give me my [Journal] salary but it was something.
"He couldn't fire Rob. Rob said, if he doesn't make me the editor, I'm quitting. He had to hire Rob. He couldn't deal with shutting down the paper. The word would've gotten out that he had fired me and Rob. Rob's parents belong to the Hillside Country Club. His father was an advertising executive. Yeah, they're wealthy."
"His brother is very wealthy. He lives in Sun Valley, Idaho. He's a broker. His sister has a wealthy husband and they live outside of Stanford. Rob's wife has a good income from her books."
"I interviewed Sheldon Teitelbaum. He had some critical things to say about you. Maybe you could look them over?"
"I'm sure he did."
I give Gene my three-page transcript of my Sheldon interview.
Here are excerpts:
Gene: "That was the second or third issue of the paper. Brandeis-Bardin had been the institute that everyone on the board [of the Journal] had become a member of. Shlomo Bardin had gotten them interested in Judaism. It was their alma mater. Sheldon's piece attacked Prager and the Bardin board for letting him go on and not wanting to air the dirty linen of Prager being a terrible head of Brandeis Bardin.
"So Barbie, a member of the four-member editorial board, was hostile and critical. She wanted me to kill the story or hear the tapes. I asked Sheldon about the tapes. I was getting a lot of heat on that piece. I said to her, I have the tapes. She said, I want to listen to them. I said why? I can't allow that. She got very angry and offended. I stood up to them. She then demanded at the editorial board be able to read my editorials and any piece that they wanted prior to publication. I said no. If you do that, you don't need me. You need an efficient managing editor who can process the paper. So you should let me go. That was my way of saying I was going to resign.
"They took a vote. They came down on my side. She resigned.
"I listened to the tape. I told Sheldon that his questions were very aggressive and very hostile. I said to him that I'd interviewed many people and been in on many interviews, but I had never heard any interview as hostile and aggressive as that. I think you ought to change your way of doing it.
"He didn't hear me.
"I found his writing dense. Because of my experience at Esquire, I was much more interested in good writing than in journalism. Each one of these people -- Steve was a wonderful writer. Yehuda was a good writer. Tom Waldman was a decent writer. Sheldon, a reporter, was too dense and I had a hard time getting through his pieces. Too many facts compressed. You had to get into it and push and it was too much work.
"He was very ambitious. He wanted to do everything. He said, I want to write a column about Israel. I said great. He'd say, I want to do this. I'd say great. He'd say, I want to do that. I'd say great. I'd read the material and say, this doesn't work, and I began to peel back.
"He came into my office one day. I think he lasted about a year. He said, I'm having a problem with you. I said, let's talk about it. My office is always open. What is it?
"He said you let me do this and then you don't run it. I said, I'm having a hard time with the writing. You get a lot of facts and you're really energetic but you're writing is too dense. It requires too much editing time for me. They're very hard to edit. I'm doing this alone. I'm doing this alone. I don't have the time to give it the editing it needs.
"It is true that I did not want him to rock the boat, but when he did, I really stood up for him. And this happened with other stories."
Gene: "The paper was independent. I ran a lot of stories the board objected to. We ran a piece critical of Marvin Hier and the Wiesenthal Center by Yehuda Lev. Marvin was furious. I offered to come down to meet him. He read me the riot act. A lot of members of my board were on the board of the Wiesenthal Center.
"I listened and said, you're telling me that this is wrong and this is wrong and this is wrong in the article. As well as the tone. He said yes. I said, let me check. I went back and checked. The tone was hostile but the facts were wrong. I called him and apologized. You're absolutely right. It's my fault. I should've checked. I want you to promise to call me every time we run a piece on the Wiesenthal Center to let me know if the facts are right.
"I did not offer to promote Sheldon."
"Did you go to any AJPA meetings?"
"What adjectives would you use to describe them?"
"They were sort of dull."
"There were about a half dozen people I liked. The rest of the people represented small town community papers and I felt their views were dominant because there were more of them. That was not what I was interested in. Marc Klein put out a paper in San Francisco that I didn't like. Their interests and my interests were not congruent. I'm not sure I was right. I felt we didn't do a good enough job publishing community news.
"We published wedding announcements when people married non-Jews. That was controversial."
"Were there any great stories during your tenure that you couldn't get in the paper?"
"There was one story that I killed [circa 1988] but not through pressure. My killing it was unpopular. Naomi Pfefferman, who I had hired, had done a long piece about the University of Judaism. There was a female professor there, a poet [Marsha Falk], who was popular among the students and had published a lot and had a PhD. When it came time for tenure, the president David Lieber, vetoed her tenure. He was popular and he was leaving. He was a humane decent man but he had a hard time with women. The faculty had been for her. There were some ugly incidents concerning students who had protested. Naomi had done a terrific job. We had the story. I regret that we didn't run it.
"I got calls from people on the board of the University of Judaism. Kill the story. They hadn't read it.
"I did some background. He [Dr. David Lieber] said to me, 'I can't bear this woman. She was obnoxious.' If we ran the story in its entirety, we would've had to come out with the reason she was denied tenure -- that the president and some of the faculty found her obnoxious. They didn't want her as a colleague.
"I should've run it but I didn't want to hurt her feelings."
"She didn't realize that?"
"No. Nor did Naomi. People thought I was knuckling under. The poet had had dinner at my house. In fairness to David Lieber, I would've had to say that, so I killed the story. If I were working at The New York Times, I wouldn't have killed the story, but I felt that a community newspaper has an obligation to people in the community to not hurt them unnecessarily. That is not a journalistic view."
Dr. David Lieber replies to my inquiry on this matter:
"I changed one story," says Gene. "I ran a story about a rabbi who had been a rabbi [Robert Kirschner] in San Francisco and had been caught out sexually. He came down one summer to teach at HUC. He turned out the dean at HUC and he were buddies. That nobody on the faculty nor the students had been consulted. So we wrote the story outing him and the dean. They rescinded the offer or he backed out. We did it in full.
"Then, about three years later, when he was at the Skirball, Debra Nussbaum Cohen did a series on sex and the rabbinate. About five pieces. We ran them as one long piece. There was a lot about him. We had already run that in the HUC story. We mentioned him in passing but we didn't replay.
"The author [Debra Nussbaum Cohen says it was not her on the phone to Gene, she remembers no such conversation] sent me a hot letter and sent a short piece to [Buzz] magazine that we had knuckled under to the Skirball, which was not true. I called her, you're wrong. She said, why wouldn't you run it? I said, we already did it. I didn't see the need to shoot him again. He has a full-time job. She said, no, you're just chicken. You're just knuckling under. I said, why are you so aggressive on this point? She said, well, I'm the voice of his wife. I'm speaking out in defense of his wife.
[Debra says she would never speak this way. She considers such an approach to journalism to be unprofessional.]
"I said, boy, who appointed you to that job. She said, you don't understand. I said, let me suggest something to you as the defendant. If he doesn't have a job at the Skirball, he's living with his mother because he's paying everything in alimony, his wife's income is going to be cut. As her defendant, you should think about that. She didn't reply.
"I didn't knuckle under. I'm sure I toned some things down when pressure was applied. But on major issues, we ran the stories. Sheldon did not have to edit [for content] except when it was too dense [stylistically]."
I tell Gene that Debra disputes that such a conversation ever took place. I press him for more details. He writes:
I supply this to Debra Nussbaum Cohen who replies:
Gene writes me 7/1/04:
I ask Gene via email: "Publisher Stanley Hirsh wanted a gossip column. Why did you not give him one?"
Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, writes 7/14/04: "I just read Gene’s interview with you. Really interesting. I can’t imagine that outside of me, you and Gene anyone would be interested, but I appreciate your doing it. Gene is thoughtful and independent, and much of what is good about the paper was his doing. BTW, he was wrong on most, if not all, the facts concerning my family and its Rothschildean wealth. But as we sat around the 17th century Carerra marble mantle piece in the family library on the ancestral Eshman manse next door to the Heinz’s little place, we all had a good, rich laugh."